Today, Steve Jobs revealed a great many things, but the biggest bombshell was this -- Apple's iCloud, which promises to sync all your content, automatically, even wirelessly, to Apple's new server farms... for free. All that processing power in the picture above can't have been cheap, and multiplied by the entirety of those data centers... well, let's just say it's a heck of a promise and we've got somewhat mixed feelings about how it'll play out. Hit the break to see what we thought of Apple's play for cloud storage.
I had some mixed feelings while watching today's iCloud unveil. So much of the service is functionality already available on other platforms, particularly on Android -- if you consider Google Docs and Picasa a part of Android, at least. But regardless of who got there first, Apple's implementation of cloud-awareness in iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion definitely pushes the entire ecosphere forward a big step. Being able to sync your documents seamlessly across all your devices is hugely attractive, plus photos and contacts and other miscellany, and doing it for free is of course an offer no iOS user will be able to refuse. And then there's iTunes in the Cloud, $25 annually and basically a free ticket to turn all your ripped music into legit iTunes files in high-quality and with no DRM. In other words: iCloud as a whole may not make too may Android users jealous, but Google Music is already looking a bit dated, and it's not even out of beta yet.
Ah, iCloud. We've known it was coming, but Apple seriously pulled a few surprises today. For starters, it made Google Music look a bit like a red-headed stepchild. No offense to stepchildren, nor red-heads. Put simply, the music aspect of iCloud is exactly what Google Music should've been, and it's hard to imagine what kind of talks went on behind the scenes to make that all come together. Either way, at $25 a year, it's a total steal (iTunes Match, that is), and it'll most certainly serve iOS users well. I wasn't quite sold on iCloud only holding Photos for 30 days (why isn't this the same for music and documents?), but I suspect that a few premium options will unfold in due time for heavier users.
All told, today's announcements weren't so much eye-popping as they were expected, but as with the introduction of copy-and-paste into the iOS universe, these "expected" additions bring iOS up to par with Android in terms of notifications, contacts, etc. The best part of today isn't so much what Apple did, but what Google will have to do in order to keep step. As an avid Android user, I'm thrilled to see what the next overhaul of Android will hold now that El Goog has its back against the wall once more. It's hard to kvetch with iCloud given it's rock-bottom price tag (read: free), but it also makes it even harder to ever escape the iOS ecosystem should you ever decide to test the waters. But then again, maybe that's the point.
If you're not a strict Apple adherent, the basic tenets of iCloud should actually look mighty familiar -- in a nutshell, it's exactly what we've come to expect from Google. Why do people use Gmail? Picasa? Google Docs? Multiple reasons, but a particularly important one is that they all store your important data in the cloud and instantly sync changes across devices, for free. The latest versions of Android even back up your apps, too, so bullet point for bullet point, Apple's not too far ahead of Google, technically.
But you know something? Google's been struggling to actually integrate many of its lovely cloud services into Android in a usable, finger-friendly way -- often relying on ugly mobile web interfaces -- and here comes Apple with the promise to tie everything together beautifully. I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but assuming there's none, Google had better get with the program if it wants to have a competitive device ecosystem. The battle lines have been drawn. If you ask me, though, Google still has room to fire a salvo of its own: if it can price its music streaming solution cheaper than Apple's music download one (how about free?), it might yet have an edge with tunes.
Well, it's about time! Cloud syncing (along with notifications and Twitter integration) was one of the few missing items on my must-have list of features for iOS, and it looks like Apple's delivered this with iCloud. I'm most excited about the PC Free and WiFi Sync features, along with the ability to backup / restore apps and settings, which is way overdue. iTunes in the Cloud is pretty interesting, mostly as a way to keep the music on my Macs, iPhone and iPad in sync -- I may even spend the money on an iTunes Match subscription. Photo Stream is less important to me because I already use Flickr, and I have no use for contact, calendar, and email support since I'm heavily invested in Google's services. Ultimately, my adoption of Apple's cloud syncing will depend on ease-of-use, customization, and the amount of balance between the two. While iCloud may be late to the party, it's here, it's free, and it fills an important gap in the iOS ecosystem.
I've been a paid MobileMe (and .Mac) subscriber in the past, but I didn't really have any interest in continuing a $99 annual subscription for sync and yet another email address. Now, with all the new iCloud features, and that awesome price tag (free!), I'm definitely coming back. I'd prefer to be able to access my content at any time over 3G (and soon LTE -- I can dream, right?), but I also like being able to make phone calls and check my email, and judging by AT&T's network performance in NYC, my iPhone would quickly become an iPod touch if hundreds of thousands of iOS devices around the city were bouncing music and movies back and forth. I also imagine some users wouldn't necessarily want all of their content popping up on the family Apple TV (naughty iPhone pics, anyone?), so PhotoStream may be responsible for some awkward moments in the future. Overall, iCloud sounds like a win for Apple and iOS device owners, and you really can't beat the ad-free price tag. Sayonara, MobileMe.
As a user who remembers feeling burned when Apple killed its free iTools service (only to be replaced by the $99 / year .Mac), I have intentionally stayed clear of MobileMe. Honestly, it was an easy decision when everything of value was available freely from Google -- where my digital life is now very entrenched. While I don't expect my documents or email to receive an iCloud makeover, subscribing to iTunes Match will be the easiest $25 I've ever spent -- simply to ensure my music collection remains protected.
Still, iTunes in the Cloud doesn't match the omnipresence that's at the core of Google Music, and Apple needs to take this extra step to achieve parity. I want to know that all of my music and photos -- regardless of whether it's stored on the iPhone -- will be available from "above." Ultimately, users will demand their content being effortlessly accessible, and I expect massive local storage to become an arcane concept (that only serves to inflate handset prices). Apple is known for changing paradigms and driving industries forward, but I fear it's got some catching up to do in the cloud. Nonetheless, today was quite a leap.
For me, the biggest news here boils down to one word: "free." With almost no exceptions, I'm not surprised to learn what iCloud actually does. And why be shocked? Certain features, such as email and calendar, have their roots in MobileMe, while a series of leaks and rumors primed us for the fact that syncing among devices was on the way. So it's not the functionality that impresses me so much as the fact that it won't cost anything. That, and the level of integration. I'm a long-time Android user, and I'll be the first to admit that many of the updates today borrow liberally from other platforms (hello, drop-down notifications!). But you know what? As an Android user I wish I could have more native integration between my handset and, say, my Google Docs. And I'd love to download the same things without having to pay all over again.
Apple doesn't get a whole lot of points for originality, but it deserves credit for making its service free, accessible, and tightly integrated. And if all of this rolls out smoothly, it would tell us that Apple's learned a whole lot about cloud services since its bungled MobileMe launch. Yes, you can say Apple is trying to out-Google Google at its own game (to quote our friend Sean Hollister), but if the result is a seamless service that offers functionality you're not used to getting for free, and puts pressure on its competitors to step it up, then it's we, the consumers, who ultimately win.
My initial response to iCloud? It's a neat solution, but I already have a cocktail of different solutions that work together pretty well. All my work and productivity is already in the cloud thanks to Google Docs, Dropbox and Windows Live Mesh (which has rescued me more times than I care to remember). My contacts and calendars already sync automatically from my iPhone to my Gmail account, and I even occasionally use the cloud photo storage function in Picasa. Like iCloud, they're all free. I don't see myself leaving any of these platforms to shift to Apple's all-in-one service because I'm still cross-platform and I do maybe 60% of my work on a PC.
So it's here. The eagerly awaited and much-talked about iCloud has finally been revealed, and despite all of the conjecture, it's free -- well, mostly. Of course, we'll have to wait and see how the setup actually performs, but when it comes to music, Apple's managed to deliver a more comprehensive cloud-based system than either Amazon or Google (at least on paper), and they did so (presumably) by playing nice with the music labels. I'm not saying that record companies actually deserve a slice of the sky-pie, but, unfortunately for Apple's competition, it looks like music industry diplomacy means a better deal for the end user -- at least in theory.
This is what MobileMe should've been from the beginning. Steve Jobs even admitted the service was "not Apple's finest hour," but the iCloud has the potential to be quite the opposite. My wife and I own iPhones and an iPad; until now, we've found creative ways to get the same services from third-parties without shelling $99 out of our wallet each year for the same thing. I can definitely see the benefit of iCloud, because sharing calendars, contacts, photos, and music with my wife quickly and easily will make it a much more pleasant experience for us -- especially now that it's free. There's just one problem: I currently have a 2GB monthly data cap on my iPhone. How much data will the iCloud suck up when I'm nowhere near a WiFi hotspot? Or will I be constrained to WiFi?
Today's announcement may have lacked that element of surprise we've all come to expect from Apple's love-fests, but it still left me pretty intrigued. Fluid, cross-iDevice syncing has always been something of a glaring hole in the iTunes fabric, and one that was only exacerbated with the relative failure of MobileMe. If iCloud really is as seamless as Jobs made it look today, it could go a long way toward filling that gap, though I'd still like to know the extent to which users will be able to personalize the service.
iTunes Match, for example, seems tailor-made for people (myself included) who may be too lazy to manually upload their massive libraries, though I can certainly understand the hesitation that comes with outsourcing control of your entire music collection to some mysterious hand in the heavens. And, as ironclad as Apple's new data center looks, the company may still need to prove that the iCloud won't suddenly burst one day -- especially since it won't just be housing music, but more personal documents and photos, as well. In an age of privacy concerns and security scares, it may take a lot of time for Apple to build up enough trust to draw a wide swath of consumers skyward. But the carrot definitely looks juicy enough for a convenience enthusiast like myself to take a bite.
MobileMe has finally been put out to pasture and, honestly, it was long overdue. Even Jobs, notorious for tooting his own horn, admitted that the service was "not our finest hour." iCloud, replicates many of the same functions, but most importantly it tackles some of my most nagging complaints about the iTunes ecosystem. Anyone who has ever wiped out a computer or moved to a new iPhone knows that re-downloading all your purchases is a major pain in the neck. The iTunes Store now has a handy purchased tab, something Android has featured for sometime, but even this unrepentant iOS defector is confident that Apple will win on user experience here. The promise of app data synchronization is extremely exciting and could have saved this former iPhone owner tons of frustration. Sadly, iTunes Match has left me wanting. It's certainly an elegant solution to the problem of making your music truly portable but, the fine print reveals a strict 25,000 song limit -- an absolute deal breaker for this avid music collector.
Everything synced to the Apple iCloud, "just working," all the time? Sounds great, except for stingy data cheapskates like myself -- do all pictures upload to the cloud, or can we only send the images we choose? How about a data monitor, for all that back and forth we're bound to do using up that 5GB of email and calendar storage? I didn't see anything about sync management come out of Apple today, and while I don't expect Cupertino to abandon the data-obsessive, I could use some assurance. Oh, and iTunes in the Cloud? Well, Match is cool, but even us cheapos like to splurge on streaming music every now and then. I expected more.
I've always viewed cloud services with a discerning eye and never felt excited about storing data offsite; that's until I caught a glimpse of iCloud. Frankly, I'm giddy over what its cluster of new "cloud apps" will bring to the table. See, I've spent time with private cloud servers like the Pogoplug, and even Google's CR-48, but was constantly let down by clunky access methods. The auto synchronization between devices with iCloud specifically is a small feature that spoke largely to me about how seamless and simple this service is trying to be. That ease-of-use factor mixed with powerful incentives like iTunes Match, have me ready to finally consider ditching the cables and external drives for that mythical cloud -- and it's mostly free? I'm sold.